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As kids grow up and navigate their rapidly changing environment, they can experience anxiety which is a natural but complex emotional response. This time of year, in particular, it is not uncommon for children to have uneasy feelings related to starting a new school year. While some level of anxiety is normal and even helpful, excessive or persistent anxiety can become problematic and interfere with a child’s daily life and development. Children lack the vocabulary to express thoughts and feelings like adults. Consequently, back-to-school anxiety often manifests itself in non-verbal ways requiring parents to pay attention to both their behaviour and words to figure out what their child might be going through.
What is Anxiety?
In evolutionary terms, anxiety is a survival mechanism used by mammals to react to or escape from imminent danger. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight-or-fight response, preparing the body for intense physical activity. It is a natural alarm system that allows us to size up potential threats so we can either run from them or react to them. Anxiety directs us during emergencies like the sound of a smoke detector during a fire. It helps us to survive. Everyone experiences it and for the most part, it is a helpful response. However, anxiety is unhealthy when sustained over long periods of time to a point where it paralyzes a persontheir ability to function normally.
Types of Childhood Anxiety
Childhood anxiety is neither a character flaw nor a sign of weakness. It often stems from a combination of genetic, environmental, and developmental factors. There are several types of anxiety disorders that can affect children. These include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Anxiety in children can evolve as they grow and mature. Separation anxiety is more common in younger children, while social anxiety might become more pronounced during adolescence.
Back-to-school anxiety generally manifests near the end of the summer. The symptoms present differently in each child and can include restlessness, heightened sensitivity, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Others may complain about stomach aches, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, and avoidance behaviors. If your child is withdrawn and lacks enthusiasm about back-to-school shopping there could be something emotionally amiss.
Parenting a Child with Back-to-school Anxiety
Parents caregivers, and educators must recognize the unique needs of each child. By fostering open communication, validating their feelings, and offering guidance without judgement, they can instil trust and security in anxious kids. Early intervention and access to therapy and counseling, can significantly help a child cope with anxiety and adjust to new routines. Empowering children with good communication skills and equipping them with healthy coping mechanisms can help them effectively manage and overcome their back-to-school anxiety. Here are a few strategies that might help your child:
1. Validate Emotions
First, create an environment where you can foster dialogue with your child about their feelings. If they need reassurance, then respond to that need truthfully. For example, do not say “You are a fantastic soccer player and will definitely make the team!” You do not have control over that outcome and offering them solid guarantees can make disappointments harder to manage. In the long run, this causes them to doubt themselves and they can end up requiring constant affirmation from others.
Instead, you can reassure kids by building their resiliency to accept losses gracefully. An appropriate response would be, “I am glad you told me how you feel. This means a lot to you, and it is normal to worry. I am so proud of you because trying out takes courage.” Empathizing with stories of failures and successes from your own childhood can help you build an emotional connection. Sometimes, kids are not looking for solutions. Some simply want validation of their feelings. You can support and provide a sense of stability by helping them talk through their doubts and fears.
2. Introduce Predictable Routines
As soon as possible after summer vacations are over, start establishing regular routines for meals, exercise, and bedtime. Hunger and fatigue, topped with heightened anxiety, produce ideal conditions for “hangry” kids, flaring tempers and tantrums. Predictability offers a stabilizing anchor for the entire family, including parents, and helps children regulate their emotions better.
You can also start exposing them to their school and all things associated with it before the first day. For example, drive by the school or take daily walks on the school grounds. You could email their teacher for a potential video call and encourage your child to connect with their peers using social distancing guidelines.
Kids can easily pick up on their parents’ emotional cues. If you emit anxious vibes while simultaneously trying to reassure your kids, they will pick up on the incongruence between your emotions and words. Consequently, ensure you have an established exercise routine to decompress. You can also incorporate daily deep breathing and mindfulness exercises with the kids. This will not only teach them how to self-soothe but will also create an intrinsically peaceful environment around the home when back-to-school anxiety is running high.
If you offered your child flexibility with bedtime over the summer break, then you can prepare for back-to-school routines by transitioning your child to predictable sleeping and waking hours. It sometimes takes them a week or two to adjust, therefore parents will benefit from starting all of this before the school term begins. Carving out time in your schedule just before bedtime for the self-care techniques described above can help set the tone for a peaceful night’s rest.
3. Encourage Positive Thinking
Scientific studies have proven that when a person’s state of mind is generally optimistic, they can handle the stress of everyday life in constructive ways. Positive thinking does not mean ignoring the unpleasantness that life can deliver. Rather it requires you to change your mindset about how to approach a tough situation productively. For example, rather than being afraid of a task you have never done before, you can view it as an opportunity to learn something new. This changes the paradigm completely for moving forward. Back-to-school anxiety is the perfect setting to help your child develop a growth mindset and reinforce positive thinking which will allow them to cope with the upcoming change and uncertainty.
While you want your child to feel and process their fears and apprehension, you can ensure this remains a positive experience overall. Helping them focus on things that create good vibes can counteract some of the negativity associated with back-to-school anxiety. For instance, talk about the fun events of past school terms. Offer specific details to deepen their positive thinking. For example, remind him/ her about when the school won a volleyball competition. Then encourage them to recall a positive moment. “Do you remember the award you received after winning the volleyball competition last year? We all went out for ice cream later. Who joined us from your team?” Your goal here is to “milk” the positive memories for all they’re worth.
4. Meet Their Attachment Needs
Children form attachment bonds with their primary caregiver(s) from infancy. This is an emotional non-verbal tie that helps them feel secure and cared for. Strong attachment bonds create a solid foundation upon which an organized and well-regulated nervous system can develop. Generally, younger children experience attachment anxiety more frequently. However, teenagers are not immune to it. Indeed, a healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood is much better facilitated by secure attachment and emotional connectedness with parents.
You can ease young children, especially those starting daycare or school for the first time, into detaching in small steps. Encourage them to play by themselves in their room while you prepare dinner, or leave them with an alternative caregiver while you go out for dinner. Children as old as 3 years of age can conjure a mental representation of their attachment figure to soothe themselves, even when the parent is not present. You can create a craft or paint a rock together and explain how they can take it to daycare or school to remind them of your love and connection. Talk about the big day as you work at your computer by saying “When you go to daycare, I will be working here at my desk on the computer and then I’ll pick you up at the end of the day.”
Older children may not require the same degree of physical closeness to derive comfort from their parents when they are distressed. Their attachment needs come from knowing they have the support of their parents when they struggle with doubts and fears. Teenagers often avoid talking about back-to-school anxiety and may even label the discussion as silly. Parents can mitigate this by picking an appropriate time to bring up the topic. Avoid moments when they are angry or confrontational. Rather, broach it when they are happy and calm, and gently let them know that they can come to you for anything they are worried about, no matter what. Always provide a non-judgmental place where they can feel safe expressing their feelings.
Seeking Help for Back-To-School Anxiety
Every child is unique, and their experience of anxiety will vary. Back-to-school anxiety is usually short-lived for most kids. Once they settle into school and new routines, many will take the ups and downs of school life in stride. However, a small percentage of children struggle to adapt. This often occurs with children who have social anxiety, those who are bullied, and even kids with learning disabilities who do not enjoy school because they cannot keep up. If your child continues to have severe meltdowns at drop-off time and exhibits signs of significant anxiety even after three or four weeks, then you should consult with a qualified mental health professional who specializes in working with children. They can provide a comprehensive assessment and recommend appropriate treatment options based on your child’s specific needs.
Anxiety often has a root cause. A trained child therapist can get to the bottom of this problem and present a plan, such as Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help your child recognize the triggers and signs of anxiety. Then they arm them with coping tactics that allow them to soothe themselves. In some cases, medication might help supplement psychotherapy treatment. Child therapists usually work in conjunction with parents as well as teachers to ensure everyone is on the same page. Anxiety is a curable condition and the skills your child learns at therapy sessions can help them for a lifetime.
If you need someone to speak to, contact us. We have helped many children manage their anxiety using a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.